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Windows 7 : Windows Media Center—What’s the Hubbub?

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2/14/2014 12:18:29 AM
Windows Media Center (or WMC as I’ll refer to it from here on out) is included in Windows 7 Home Premium, Professional, Enterprise, and Ultimate editions. All other versions of Windows 7 do not include the WMC components. WMC is an outgrowth of Microsoft’s interest in evolving the common PC into a multimedia entertainment center. Due to specific hardware requirements, which include a TV tuner capture card with built-in MPEG-2 video encoding and decoding, a high-end graphics card with a minimum of 64MB of video memory, DVD recording, a fast processor, and other goodies, WMC is usually purchased as a preloaded component on a new PC.

Note

Complete books have been written about Windows Media Center Edition (the predecessor to WMC-equipped versions of Windows Vista), and I expect new books will be written about WMC as well, although I believe that within a week’s time of experimentation, a fairly savvy user can discover the ins and outs of WMC on her own. It certainly helps to have a bit of a primer, however, with some tips scattered throughout.


With the advent of the Windows Anywhere initiative, users without WMC-compatible hardware can purchase the hardware separately, install it, then upgrade the OS to an appropriate version of Windows 7 and enjoy WMC on their PC.

WMC adds the capability to do the following with a large TV-like interface using a remote control:

  • Display and record TV shows

  • Listen to cable, broadcast, and Internet FM radio

  • Rip and play music CDs

  • Play DVDs

  • Manage and display your digital photographs

  • Record DVDs

Of course, as you know, you can rip music CDs, play DVDs, and display your digital photographs using Windows Media Player and Windows Photo Gallery. WMC essentially puts a new skin on those functions and integrates them with TV viewing and a few other goodies. Windows 7 Media Center includes easier access to IPTV content and TV guides, rich touchscreen capabilities, and a variety of tools for accessing, navigating, and searching through video content.

As we know, Microsoft (often standing on the shoulders of innovative giants) has helped push the industry to new heights, or at least to take a deep breath on the technology ascent, by codifying standards. Whether through fostering cooperation among technology companies or by forcing its own agenda, it doesn’t much matter. Progressive standards for such things as data CD recording, sound and video cards, high-resolution color displays, energy conservation, standardized I/O ports, Plug and Play (PnP) interfaces, as well as greater overall computer performance have often been championed by Microsoft. Standards, of course, serve Microsoft because its bread and butter depends on selling OSs that can run reliably on as many brands and models of PCs as possible.

WMC is an exciting milestone in the evolution of PC OSs that began in earnest back when the first spec for a multimedia PC (MPC) was issued by Microsoft. I remember writing, even somewhat wistfully, about the MPC in my earlier Windows books (3.11 and 95). At that time, it was a big deal to include in PCs the now-ubiquitous sound cards and CD-ROM drives. (I recall purchasing my first outboard SCSI-based CD-ROM drive from Toshiba for $600 and change.) The next step (learning from the woefully underpowered MPC spec) was the Entertainment PC 97 spec. The minimum system requirements for the Entertainment PC 97 are a 150MHz Pentium chip, a 256KB Level 2 cache, 32MB of memory, 3D audio, and the Universal Serial Bus. This spec was a subset of the Simply Interactive PC (SIPC) spec, to be technically accurate.

Of course, bloatware applications and the increasing speed demands of the once-gluttonous Windows itself also spurred the demand for quicker PCs. Unfortunately, this comes at some cost to the environment as well as our pocketbooks, as we feel obliged to continuously dispose of older computers and upgrade to newer ones. On the upside of this unceasing speed and size war (the belief that bigger and faster are always better) comes the likes of WMC. Were it not for lightning-fast CPUs, video cards, hard drives, front-side buses, DVD drives, and inexpensive color displays, PCs couldn’t begin to tackle exotic, highly data-intensive tasks such as DVD playback and TV recording.

Following on the heels of the popular TiVo digital video recorder (DVR) and competing systems such as ShowStopper (from Panasonic) and ReplayTV (from ReplayTV), the WMC attraction to many is driven primarily by its capability to mimic a DVR. Although, as I mentioned, WMC also gives you MP3, CD, and DVD playback and digital photo slideshows, we could already do those with Windows Media Player and the Windows Picture and Fax viewer, respectively. The only difference in those departments is the delivery medium: WMC lets you control the show from the comfort of your armchair, using a remote control. The show itself plays on your TV or, preferably, through your TV projector in your home theater.

The idea of a computerized house—especially for entertainment delivery—is so appealing that home builders are beginning to build WMC machines, along with in-wall wiring and integrated large plasma screens, into newly built homes. Some developers are doing this on a large-scale basis, in hundreds of homes. This helps housing developers differentiate themselves from the competition.

Speaking of competition, alternative hardware and software packages have been on the market for some time that do all that WMC does, but it’s more of a mix-and-match approach to creating a home-entertainment PC. For TV viewing and recording, you have to add hardware such as a TV tuner/video card to your PC, be sure that the sound card and TV tuner work together, and so on. You can record and play back TV and even do text searches through recorded captions, looking for hot words in, say, a newscast. A quick search on the Web reveals a few well-liked products, including

  • CyberLink PowerCinema

  • SageTV Media Center

  • SnapStream Beyond TV

Some of these programs have numerous features that WMC is missing, such as web-based control and media-server capability.

 
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